Fashion designer Tom Ford writes and directs this film, which features Amy Adams as art gallery owner Susan Morrow who, out of the blue, receives a book manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) and, through reading it, sees it as a thinly veiled critique on their former relationship. The film features multiple narrative strands as Edward’s story “Nocturnal Animals”, which primarily concerns a family who are run off the road and assaulted by dangerous men, is brought to life and through flashbacks, we also chart the progress of the couple’s relationship, revealing just what went wrong.
Nocturnal Animals is visually impressive, not surprising since it is the project of a fashion designer, and much of the film is pristine, especially the scenes that take place in Susan’s immaculate, extravagant art world. The West Texas scenes are also competently shot and the use of different colour palettes for the multiple narratives is commendable.
As many have pointed out, the pivotal scene wherein the family gets run off the road by Aaron Taylor Johnson’s character and his buddies is the highlight of the film. The very definition of “nail biting”, it is relentlessly tense and constantly has you wondering just how it will all play out. I found it remarkably similar to Duel since in both cases, characters innocently overtaking and blaring the horn result in trouble and the tension and uncertainty is similar.
The leading actors perform well; Jake Gyllenhaal in particular gets ample opportunity to shine as Tony, the lead character in the story-within-the-story “Nocturnal Animals”. He goes through the emotional ringer as his family is terrorized by the dangerous men and his character arc is clearly the most engaging. Aaron Taylor Johnson also greatly impresses in his most mature role to date as the swaggering, repulsive Ray Marcus and of course, ol’ mad eyes himself Michael Shannon is great as authoritative lawman Bobby Andes.
The film also boasts an impressive John Barry-esque music score, courtesy of Abel Korzeniowski. The string heavy arrangement is an ideal thriller score, keeping the film as tense as possible and creating something of a Hitchcockian atmosphere.
However, the film does have problems. After a certain point, I started wondering “So, what is this film actually about?” and ultimately, it’s all a bit . . . pointless. The Gyllenhaal/Shannon storyline is too much of a digression from the Amy Adams/art gallery strand and I was expecting much more of a revelation regarding the significance of the story-within-a-story. The West Texas scenes are the best part of the film but they are incompatible with the rest. I was also disappointed when the credits started to roll as so many questions were left unanswered, there was no properly thrilling event or revelation and the film left me unfulfilled and empty.
The flashbacks, which show how the relationship disintegrated, are uninteresting and I found myself drifting off whenever they both appeared on screen together, not caring at all as to what they were saying or whether they could make things work or not. Reminiscing on the happier times in a relationship has been done so much better in the past, with films like Blue Valentine and Gone Girl, and it is genuinely hard to care about these characters who are fundamentally uninteresting, bland and poorly written. In particular, Amy Adams’ character is vacuous, unsympathetic and dull, though Adams tries her best with what she’s given and ultimately, it is a bit of a task spending two hours or so with these characters.
Also, for a film that boasts an extremely impressive cast list, many of the players are completely wasted. Performers such as Jena Malone, Zawe Ashton, Armie Hammer, an unrecognizable Andrea Riseborough and pride-of-Wales Michael Sheen are simply cameo performances, not given as much screen time as they deserve.
Plus, I think we could have all done without that insanely uncomfortable opening title sequence. Maybe there was a reason behind it (the subjective nature of beauty/image/body type?) but it was unnecessary and awkward.
★ ★ ★
Stylish, well crafted and with a few great performances but with no soul and fundamentally uninteresting characters. Classic style over substance.